Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy

Legendary philanthropist and pioneer Bohra reformist

by Saifuddin Insaf

Adamji Peerbhoy was born in the year 1846 at Dhoraji town in Kathiyawar in India in a very poor Dawoodi Bohra family of Qadir Bhai and Sakina Banu Peerbhoy. Adamji was honest, hardworking and above all very optimistic. At the age of 13 he came down to Bombay with his parents in search of livelihood with just Rs 5 in his pocket. In those days even Rs 5 was considerable amount. They took up a house on rent of Rs 1 per month. Adamji started selling matchboxes on the footpath in the Fort area. During rainy season he took shelter in the devdi (business office) of one Lukmanji Seth. Since Adamji could not afford the rent and at the same time he did not want to use that place for free he proposed that Lukmanji provide him material and he would paint his house free. Lukmanji gave him work of painting his house. While staying in that place Adamji learnt reading and writing a bit of Gujarati language and some calculation. One Englishman, Lt. Smith was a friend of Lukmanji and used to visit him often. He saw the painting work of Adamji and liked it. Lt. Smith gave him work to paint his bungalow.

The graph of his life took an upward turn when he came in contact with Lt. Smith. Smith helped him for big government contracts of painting, manufacturing military tents and boots. In just two years Adamji earned Rs 5 lakhs and a name in the market. At the age of 20 he had his own bungalow ‘Peerbhoy Palace’ at Malabar Hill area (now known as Saifee Mahal), double horse driven buggies, costly furniture and several servants.

He had earned all these by his own hard work and foresight. He established several factories manufacturing thousands of tents and shoes for British soldiers. God had also given him a tender heart with a tough head. He concentrated on the welfare work both for his own community and for general public. The amount he had spent in 19th Century must be multiplied several times to get the figure at today’s value as in those days Rs. 5 to 10 used to be the monthly income for an average decent family.

  1. He distributed under his own supervision food grains worth Rs 4 lakh in 1877 among the draught affected people of Kathiwar.
  2. He was illiterate but he established 27 schools and he used to spend Rs 12000 to 13000 annually to run these schools.
  3. He built Rabat (rest houses) at Karbala, Mecca and Madina and he used to spend annually Rs 13000 to provide free food and the facilities to the Bohra pilgrims.
  4. He built a huge sanatorium along with a mosque at the Charni Road Bombay in 1885 at the cost of Rs 3.5 lakhs. This sanatorium served as a rest house for sick persons and pilgrims for several years. He also used to run a school for Bohra orphans and a dispensary for immediate medical help here.
  5. Thousands of people were affected by a devastating fire in 1886 at Burhanpur. He spent Rs 60,000 on the relief work.
  6. In 1885 he started an orphanage in Kathiyawar for the Bohras on which he used to spend Rs 30,000 to 35,000 annually.
  7. There was an acute draught situation in Yemen and he donated 2000 pound sterling for the relief of the affected Bohras.
  8. There was again a draught in Gujarat in the year 1897 and he sent relief material worth Rs 1 lakh.
  9. He also built a hospital for medical treatment of the children spending Rs 4 lakhs.
  10. He donated Rs 5 lakh to establish Prince of Wails Science Institute at Alighar University.
  11. Development of Matheran in Bombay and running a mini train there was his achievement.

It is important to note here that he paid for all these charities and development from his own hard-earned money and never collected a single paisa from the community. Sir Adamji Peerbhoy’s honesty, integrity and hard work were highly valued by the government officers.

In recognition of his splendid social welfare work he was amply awarded and recognised:

  1. Title of Justice of Peace (J.P.)
  2. He was made first Sheriff of Bombay in 1897.
  3. The 49th Dai, Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin conferred title of `Rafiuddin’ on him.
  4. In 1900 he was honoured by the title of `Qaisare-Hind'.
  5. In 1907 he was made a knight and given the title of `Sir’ by the British Government.
  6. Though an illiterate, Sir Adamji was honoured by Mohammedan Educational Conference to be its first president.

He died on 11th August 1913. The Times of India on his death wrote in a front-page editorial on 13th August 1913: “His wealth was made entirely by his own energy and persevering enterprise. He started life next to none. But as he accumulated the earnest of a hard life he showed in a marked degree that trait, which is fortunately characteristic of the modern Indian Capitalist, of generosity in devoting a portion of it to the amelioration of the lot of his fellow men … Moslems will remember him for his benefactions to their communal interests and all India is indebted to him for the splendid contribution which he made for the prosecution of scientific study at Aligarh. Government marked publicly their sense of his worth when they recommended him for Knighthood and now that he is gone we may think of him as a faithful citizen whose example it behooves his successors to emulate.”

It must be noted that Sir Adamji Peerbhoy who was born in 1846 and died in 1913 had seen the period of four Dais [47th Dai Sayedna Abdul Qadar Najmuddin (1840 to 1885 - 45 years), 48th Dai Sayedna Abdul Husain Husamuddin (1885 to 1891- 6 years), 49th Dai, Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (1891 to 1906-14 years) and 50th Dai Sayedna Abdullah Badruddin (1906 to 1915 – 7 years)]

It must be further noted that though Sir Adamji had love and respect for the Dai and Dawat but he did not tolerate any unjustified interference by any Dai. He brought 47th Dai Sayedna Abdul Qadar Najmuddin from Surat to lay down the foundation stone of the Sanatorium building at Charni Road Bombay. When Sayedna was leaving he presented him a huge sum of Rs 50,000 as a gift. the 47th Dai died and the Sanatorium was completed during the 48th Dai Sayedna Abdul Husain Husamuddin. Sir Adamji brought Sayedna Hushamuddin from Surat to perform the inaugural ceremony. After inauguration Sayedna Hushamuddin expressed the desire to stay in the newly built sanatorium for few days and Sir Adamji allowed him.

One day Sayedna Hushamuddin told Adamji, “I need Rs. 3 lakhs immediately.” Sir Adamji asked him, “Do you know how big that amount is?” Sayedna Hushamuddin said, “You gave lakhs of rupees to Najmuddin without questioning why you are arguing with me. I need that money so give me otherwise you will see what can I do to you.” Sir Adamji could not tolerate this arrogant behavior of a religious head and he asked him to get out immediately. Sayedna Hushamuddin Saheb left the sanatorium but was surprised that no Bohra in Bombay allowed him to enter in their house once he was expelled by Sir Adamji.

The period of Sayedna Abdeali Saifuddin (1825 to 1836) which lasted for just 11 years was the most glorious period of the Indian Dawoodi Bohra. But the position of Dai became very weak after the mysterious death of 46th Sayedna Badruddin (1836 to1840 - 4 years), due to the controversy of Nass. During 49th Dai, Sayedna Burhanuddin’s time, the gaddi was heavily in debt, which caused the Dawat considerable embarrassment. The financial troubles aggravated and the Dai had to borrow money from two Hindu Banias and from his own Amil, Shaikh Abdul Tayeb. They filed suits in the court of the first class judge at Surat. Shaikh Abdul Tayeb claimed Rs 56680 including interest. After much embarrassment the suit was settled by a consent decree. The defendant (Dai) was ordered to pay Rs 54,000 by installments spread over some 12 years with interest. The next step in the suit was an astounding one, because the Amil actually tried to put the Dai into prison for non-payment of the debt.

Sir Adamji, who was then in his 40s, was watching all these developments in the community with great pain. Local Dawoodi Bohra Jamats were quite independent then. They used to collect funds locally and spend locally. Nothing was regularly sent to the center (Dai’s office). Sir Adamji had consolidated his position in the community as well in public by his philanthropic activities by now. It is to Sir Adamji’s credit that in front of the Dai the Bohras used to call him ‘Bavasab’ (father figure) and general public used to know the Sayedna as Peer of Peerbhoy.

Looking to the pathetic financial condition of the Dawoodi Bohra Dais in 1899 he organised a first all Bohra Conference at Dhoraji. A booklet was published in Gujarati and distributed to all the Bohra Jamats, with the title "Dastur-al-Amal (constitution) of Dawat, Sudhara na kaidawo, Mumeeno maate, Sayedna va Maulana Mohammed Burhanuddin saheb (sallamhullaho- ta’ala) na hukam thee, Namdar Sakhidatar Sheth Adamji Peerbhoy Rafiuddin (sallamhullaho- ta’ala) taraf thee."

The conference was organised with a view to abolish certain undesirable customs, to simplify the procedure for akika, marriage etc. But the main object was to put restrictions on the powers enjoyed by the local functionaries in those days. In this Dastur-al-Amal it was also made obligatory for Amils to remit part of their collection to the center (as said above earlier the entire amount was then retained by the Amil and the local Jamat). But this process which was started by Sir Adamji in a good faith and for the love of Dai and Dawat was misused by Sayedna Taher Saifuddin for monopolizing all powers in the hands of Dai, completely throttling the freedom of his followers.

Sir Adamji Peerbhoy died two years before Sayedna Taher Saifuddin succeeded as Dai in 1915. The over ambitious and scheming Sayedna Taher Saifuddin right from beginning had started amassing wealth by hook or crook and built his own financial empire. Sir Adamji’s sons were well educated and emulated their father in public and charitable activities. Therefore Sayedna Taher Saifuddin did not take very kindly to Sir Adamji's sons activities as Sir Adamji’s and his son’s philanthropic activities far exceeded his. With Chandabhoy Galla case the Sayedna considered them as his rivals and tried to defame and alienate Sir Adamji Peerbhoy’s name. First he caught hold of ‘Peerbhoy Palace’ at Malabar Hills Bombay and converted it into Saifee Mahal, then Bohra Rabats at Karbala, Mecca and Medina, then Matheran and now Sir Adamji Peerbhoy Sanatorium, on which is now built “Saifee Hospital” on Sir Adamji Peerbhoy Sanatorium Trust’s land.

In spite of all these efforts by 51st and 52nd Sayednas, Sir Adamji Peerbhoy will always remain a greatest philanthropist and most illustrious well-wisher of the Dawoodi Bohra community.

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